January 26, 2020

Lizzo and Sociocultural Constructions of the Body

author photoBy Angelique Harris

Anyone listening to the radio or pop or hip-hop streaming stations lately certainly were aware that 2019 was the summer of rapper, singer, songwriter, and flutist, Lizzo. Born Melissa Vivianne Jefferson in the late 1980s, Lizzo had been writing and producing music for several years before her music began topping the charts over the past year.

One of the key aspects of Lizzo’s work is the focus on acceptance and diversity. Her songs promote confidence (“Truth Hurts”) while celebrating race (“My Skin”) and diverse bodies (“Tempo”). For many, her frank and open discussion of her body, sexuality, and her overall musical abilities has led her to have an immense following. Her fans, dubbed “Lizzbians” include former Malcom in the Middle actor, Frankie Muniz, who tweeted a request to Lizzo, asking her to make him her “purse.”

Many within African American communities are accustomed to hearing from female musicians, artists, athletes, and actors, who openly discuss and promote diverse body types and sizes. But in the U.S., for those outside of African American communities, these discussions and celebration of different body sizes and types, and overall body positivity are perceived as part of a “new” movement with both supporters and critics.

Last year, while promoting her film Isn’t It Romantic on the Ellen DeGeneres Show, British comedian and actor Rebel Wilson proclaimed that, “I’m kind of proud to be the first-ever plus-sized girl to be the star of a romantic comedy.” Very quickly, Black Twitter followers (dubbed as Black Twitter) discussed the many instances where overweight women starred as the lead in a romantic comedy. They pointed out the work of Monique in 2006’s “Phat Girlz” and Ricki Lake in 1988’s “Hair Spray.”

Twitter users were the most concerned about how the work of Queen Latifah, an actor who has long starred in a string of romantic comedies, was overlooked and disregarded. They emphasized that Queen Latifah, who like Lizzo, began her career as a pro-feminist rapper, has played the lead in a string of romantic comedies for years.

Wilson was accused of erasing the experiences of other plus-size women, and in particular African American women. One of the likely reasons why Wilson overlooked the work of so many actresses before her – beyond the simple fact that African American films and actors are often overlooked, ignored, or whitewashed— is that a plus-size woman starring as a romantic lead, or any other type of lead, is not that remarkable within African American communities.

Social constructionism is a theoretical framework that posits that concepts, ideas, and our overall understandings of reality are all constructed. As such, concepts such as race, sexual orientation, gender, and even obesity and the body are constructed, meaning that they all were “made up” at some point in time and beliefs about these concepts get reinforced through social interactions and teachings.

Rooted in the early writings of German philosopher Karl Mannheim, the author of the greatly influential text, Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge, the concept of constructed knowledge and perceptions were further elaborated upon in the work of Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann in The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. In this text, Berger and Luckmann argue that individuals construct their own personal realities and this version of their reality is perpetuated and reinforced through social interactions and the beliefs that people have concerning these interactions. As such, one’s experiences and social interactions help to construct their social realities and their own understandings of the world – even what is considered to be an acceptable or unacceptable body size, leading to different constructions of the body. These constructions of the body not only have great impact on overall body image and self-esteem, but also on how we conceptualize of health and wellness.

Several years ago, I worked on a research project with colleagues from multiple medical programs and institutions to examine health among African American women. Initially, the grant was designed to promote weight loss among women in one particular low-income neighborhood in Milwaukee, as this area also had high rates of obesity co-morbidities, such as hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease.

As a sociologist well versed in sociocultural constructions of the body (and as an African American woman), I’m aware that larger body sizes are not necessarily viewed as negative and weight loss might not be an important health issue for these women. In order to assess their desire for weight loss and their potential willingness to join a health promotion program, a series of focus groups were conducted.

All but one of the women who participated in our focus groups were “technically” overweight or obese, based on their body mass index, or BMI, but none of the women were interested in weight loss. Instead, they were interested in healthy living and stress reduction. Consequently, we shifted the focus of our health intervention from weight loss to overall health promotion.

I mention this story as it emphasizes not only how we as a society construct issues, like health and the body, but the role that culture plays in health, wellness, and overall body image. Although African American women tend to have higher BMIs than women of other racial ethnic groups are more likely to be overweight or obese compared to white, Asian, or Latinx women, they are also more likely to report high satisfaction with their bodies than women or girls of other racial/ethnic groups and more positive self-esteem. In essence, African American women tend to have more positive perceptions of their bodies, regardless of their body size. And in fact, in many instances, African Americans are more likely to view larger body sizes are normal.

This brings us back to Lizzo. In 2018, Sandra Garcia wrote a piece on Lizzo for the New York Times entitled, “Lizzo Wants to Build You Up.” As the title suggests, the article focuses on Lizzo’s desire to promote body positivity and self-acceptance. Importantly, Lizzo, and other artists who promote body positivity and self-esteem (such as Meghan Trainor), will help promote different understandings and more acceptance of a variety of body shapes and sizes, helping to continue to reconstruct concepts and notions of ideal body shapes and sizes.

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